Religion News Service (RNS) has an article suggesting that we should look beyond the recent Pew report’s (see our previous story here) report on the decline of religious affiliation to see that the real story is the decline of religious influence in American society.
Some will argue that this decline describes the wrong definition of religion. Religion, they say, is about a personal connection to God, and that kind of religion — or spirituality — remains strong. And it is true many Americans still have experiences they interpret as religious.
But religion can also be thought of as a set of group practices, beliefs, ethics, texts, rituals and shared values. It is an institution comprising myriad smaller organizations. And institutional religion is ceding its hold on many individuals, especially educated elites, while playing an ever-less-important public role.
Though there is anecdotal evidence that people haven’t wholly abandoned personal religious beliefs, it is clear that those personal beliefs are not rooted in any kind of communal or institutional expression. And the RNS analysis suggests that churches such as the Episcopal Church will struggle especially in this new climate since our predominant progressive stances are aligned with the larger forces of secularization which are driving the decline in religious participation and influence
Well, maybe, maybe not. But it is true that the Episcopal Church, like nearly all denominations in the US has lost absolute numbers of members and has seen significant decline in our relative standing within the population. Prominent Episcopal blogger, Susan Brown Snook, in a recent post outlined the kind of decline the Episcopal Church has seen;
From 1965 to 2012, the US population increased by a whopping 62%, while the numerical membership of TECdecreased by 39%. (TEC figures provided by Kirk Hadaway, TEC Director of Research; US figures found here.) The decline is bad enough in sheer numbers, but as a percentage of the population, our decline is staggering. TEC fell from 1.6% to a minuscule 0.6%, a 63% decline, over the same period.
Aside from rising secularization, Andy Doyle, Bishop of Texas, writes of trends within the church that have hindered adaptation to new realities; the powers of inertia that have blocked efforts at change. Arising from an understanding that most people suffer from “observation bias;” that is that we are deluded by the lens of personal experience that shapes our understanding of the world, he offers five examples that are at the root of our institutional stuck-ness.
70% of all change efforts fall short because those who are actually in charge of the change don’t change but vote or act as the church has always occurred to them. 70% fall short despite our good intentions, sophisticated systems, we have put a great group of people in the room, we have a solid management plan, and good leaders who came up with TREC report (I am biased of course having been a member of the committee).
The reason is that what occurs to the vast numbers of deputies may be one of the following: a) all structure proposals fail b) I don’t think our system is broken c) to change will remove power from me d) I like how things work e) our predecessors chose this system for a reason. Regardless of context, potential, crisis, problems, expressed concern about the continued loss of membership and money, or any other reason these 5 different ways in which the church occurs to the people will rule the day.
But Susan B. Snook offers another statistic in that same post which should be a sign of hope and a catalyst for action; that new churches tend to grow and to grow faster than established churches.
In a publication on the Episcopal Church’s website, Hadaway discusses factors associated with church growth, and concluded that newer churches are more likely to be growing churches: 54% of churches founded between 1996-2009 were growing, vs. 17% of those founded before 1900.
If we want to reach many new people with the gospel through our beautiful Episcopal Church, one huge and necessary strategy is to take some risks and plant some churches.
It is also likely that new churches are going to be the places where the kind of re-invention and re-imagination that works in the new landscape will be discovered and perfected. A history of the church shows that the predominant paradigm of change is that adaptation rarely comes form the center of authority but that successful adapters, by nature of their success come to power, overthrowing the existing model.
In order to encourage and support this kind of innovation, it is likely that some significant changes in governance structures will need to be undertaken. But we need to be aware of the potential to take away the voice of the wider church, especially the laity, and not to “streamline” out the very innovators we need in favor of centralized and narrowed power.
posted by Jon White